“What the hell are you talking about?”

Colombo threw the remains of the roll on the table and got to his feet, holding Bond's eyes locked in his. He walked sideways, still gazing fixedly at Bond, to a chest of drawers, felt for the knob of the top drawer, opened it, groped and lifted out what Bond recognized as a tape-recorder playback machine. Still looking accusingly at Bond, he brought the machine over to the table. He sat down and pressed a switch.

When Bond heard the voice he picked up his glass of whisky and looked into it. The tinny voice said: “Exact. Now, before I give you the informations, like good commercials we make the terms. Yes?” The voice went on: “Ten thousand dollars American . . . There is no telling where you get these informations from. Even if you are beaten . . . The head of this machina is a bad man. He is to be destrutto - killed.” Bond waited for his own voice to break through the restaurant noises. There had been a long pause while he thought about the last condition. What was it he had said? His voice came out of the machine, answering him. “I cannot promise that. You must see that. All I can say is that if the man tries to destroy me, I will destroy him.”

Colombo switched off the machine. Bond swallowed down his whisky. Now he could look up at Colombo. He said defensively: “That doesn't make me a murderer.”

Colombo looked at him sorrowfully. “To me it does. Coming from an Englishman. I worked for the English during the War. In the Resistance. I have the King's Medal.” He put his hand in his pocket and threw the silver Freedom medal with the red, white and blue striped ribbon on to the table. “You see?”

Bond obstinately held Colombo's eyes. He said: “And the rest of the stuff on that tape? You long ago stopped working for the English. Now you work against them, for money.”

Colombo grunted. He tapped the machine with his forefinger. He said impassively: “I have heard it all. It, is lies.” He banged his fist on the table so that the glasses jumped. He bellowed furiously: “It is lies, lies. Every word of it.” He jumped to his feet. His chair crashed down behind him. He slowly bent and picked it up. He reached for the whisky bottle and walked round and poured four fingers into Bond's glass. He went back to his chair and sat down and put the champagne bottle on the table in front of him. Now his face was composed, serious. He said quietly: “It is not all lies. There is a grain of truth in what that bastard told you. That is why I decided not to argue with you. You might not have believed me. You would have dragged in the police. There would have been much trouble for me and my comrades. Even if you or someone else had not found reason to kill me, there would have been scandal, ruin. Instead I decided to show you the truth - the truth you were sent to Italy to find out. Within a matter of hours, tomorrow at dawn, your mission will have been completed.” Colombo clicked his fingers. “Presto - like that.”

Bond said: “What part of Kristatos's story is not lies?”

Colombo's eyes looked into Bond's calculating. Finally he said: “My friend, I am a smuggler. That part is true. I am probably the most successful smuggler in the Mediterranean. Half the American cigarettes in Italy are brought in by me from Tangier. Gold? I am the sole supplier of the black valuta market. Diamonds? I have my own purveyor in Beirut with direct lines to Sierra Leone and South Africa. In the old days, when these things were scarce, I also handled aureo-mycin and penicillin and such medicines. Bribery at the American base hospitals. And there have been many other things - even beautiful girls from Syria and Persia for the houses of Naples. I have also smuggled out escaped convicts. But,” Colombo's fist crashed on the table, “drugs, heroin, opium, hemp - no! Never! I will have nothing to do with these things. These things are evil. There is no sin in the others.” Colombo held up his right hand. “My friend, this I swear to you on the head of my mother.”

Bond was beginning to see daylight. He was prepared to believe Colombo. He even felt a curious liking for this greedy, boisterous pirate who had so nearly been put on the spot by Kristatos. Bond said: “But why did Kristatos put the finger on you? What's he got to gain?”

Colombo slowly shook a finger to and fro in front of his nose. He said: “My friend, Kristatos is Kristatos. He is playing the biggest double game it is possible to conceive. To keep it up - to keep the protection of American Intelligence and their Narcotics people - he must now and then throw them a victim - some small man on the fringe of the big game. But with this English problem it is different. That is a huge traffic. To protect it, a big victim was required. I was chosen - by Kristatos, or by his employers. And it is true that if you had been vigorous in your investigations and had spent enough hard currency on buying information, you might have discovered the story of my operations. But each trail towards me would have led you further away from the truth. In the end, for I do not underestimate your Service, I would have gone to prison. But the big fox you are after would only be laughing at the sound of the hunt dying away in the distance.”

“Why did Kristatos want you killed?”

Colombo looked cunning. “My friend, I know too much. In the fraternity of smugglers, we occasionally stumble on a corner of the next man's business. Not long ago, in this ship, I had a running fight with a small gunboat from Albania. A lucky shot set fire to their fuel. There was only one survivor. He was persuaded to talk. I learnt much, but like a fool I took a chance with the minefields and set him ashore on the coast north of Tirana. It was a mistake. Ever since then I have had this bastard Kristatos after me. Fortunately,” Colombo grinned wolfishly, “I have one piece of information he does not know of. And we have a rendezvous with this piece of information at first light tomorrow - at a small fishing-port just north of Ancona, Santa Maria. And there,” Colombo gave a harsh, cruel laugh, “we shall see what we shall see.”

Bond said mildly. “What's your price for all this? You say my mission will have been completed tomorrow morning. How much?”

Colombo shook his head. He said indifferently: “Nothing. It just happens that our interests coincide. But I shall need your promise that what I have told you this evening is between you and me and, if necessary, your Chief in London. It must never come back to Italy. Is that agreed?”

“Yes. I agree to that.”

Colombo got to his feet. He went to the chest of drawers and took out Bond's gun. He handed it to Bond. “In that case, my friend, you had better have this, because you are going to need it. And you had better get some sleep. There will be rum and coffee for everyone at five in the morning.” He held out his hand. Bond took it. Suddenly the two men were friends. Bond felt the fact. He said awkwardly “All right, Colombo,” and went out of the saloon and along to his cabin.

The Colombina had a crew of twelve. They were youngish, tough-looking men. They talked softly among themselves as the mugs of hot coffee and rum were dished out by Colombo in the saloon. A storm lantern was the only light - the ship had been darkened - and Bond smiled to himself at the Treasure Island atmosphere of excitement and conspiracy. Colombo went from man to man on a weapon inspection. They all had Lugers, carried under the jersey inside the trouser-band, and flick-knives in the pocket. Colombo had a word of approval or criticism for each weapon. It struck Bond that Colombo had made a good life for himself - a life of adventure and thrill and risk. It was a criminal life - a running fight with the currency laws, the State tobacco monopoly, the Customs, the police - but there was a whiff of adolescent rascality in the air which somehow changed the colour of the crime from black to white - or at least to grey.

Colombo looked at his watch. He dismissed the men to their posts. He dowsed the lantern and, in the oyster light of dawn, Bond followed him up to the bridge. He found the ship was close to a black, rocky shore which they were following at reduced speed. Colombo pointed ahead. “Round that headland is the harbour. Our approach will not have been observed. In the harbour, against the jetty, I expect to find a ship of about this size unloading innocent rolls of newsprint down a ramp into a warehouse. Round the headland, we will put on full speed and come alongside this ship and board her. There will be resistance. Heads will be broken. I hope it is not shooting. We shall not shoot unless they do. But it will be an Albanian ship manned by a crew of Albanian toughs. If there is shooting, you must shoot well with the rest of us. These people are enemies of your country as well as mine. If you get killed, you get killed. Okay?”

“That's all right.”

As Bond said the words, there came a ting on the engine-room telegraph and the deck began to tremble under his feet. Making ten knots, the small ship rounded the headland into the harbour.

It was as Colombo had said. Alongside a stone jetty lay the ship, its sails flapping idly. From her stern a ramp of wood planks sloped down towards the dark mouth of a ramshackle corrugated iron warehouse, inside which burned feeble electric lights. The ship carried a deck cargo of what appeared to be rolls of newsprint, and these were being hoisted one by one on to the ramp whence they rolled down under their own momentum through the mouth of the warehouse.

There were about twenty men in sight. Only surprise would straighten out these odds. Now Colombo's craft was fifty yards away from the other ship, and one or two of the men had stopped working and were looking in their direction. One man ran off into the warehouse. Simultaneously Colombo issued a sharp order. The engines stopped and went into reverse. A big searchlight on the bridge came on and lit the whole scene brightly as the ship drifted up alongside the Albanian trawler. At the first hard contact, grappling-irons were tossed over the Albanian's rail fore and aft, and Colombo's men swarmed over the side with Colombo in the lead.

Bond had made his own plans. As soon as his feet landed on the enemy deck, he ran straight across the ship, climbed the far rail and jumped. It was about twelve feet to the jetty and he landed like a cat, on his hands and toes, and stayed for a moment, crouching, planning his next move. Shooting had already started on deck. An early shot killed the searchlight and now there was only the grey, luminous light of dawn. A body, one of the enemy, crunched to the stone in front of him and lay spread-eagled, motionless. At the same time, from the mouth of the warehouse, a light machine gun started up, firing short bursts with a highly professional touch. Bond ran towards it in the dark shadow of the ship. The machine-gunner saw him and gave him a burst. The bullets zipped round Bond, clanged against the iron hull of the ship and whined off into the night. Bond got to the cover of the sloping ramp of boards and dived forward on his stomach. The bullets crashed into the wood above his head. Bond crept forward into the narrowing space. When he had got as close as he could, he would have a choice of breaking cover either to right or left of the boards. There came a series of heavy thuds and a swift rumble above his head. One of Colombo's men must have cut the ropes and sent the whole pile of newsprint rolls down the ramp. Now was Bond's chance. He leapt out from under cover - to the left. If the machine-gunner was waiting for him, he would expect Bond to come out firing on the right. The machine-gunner was there, crouching up against the wall of the warehouse. Bond fired twice in the split second before the bright muzzle of the enemy weapon had swung through its small arc. The dead man's finger clenched on the trigger and, as he slumped, his gun made a brief Catherine-wheel of flashes before it shook itself free from his hand and clattered to the ground.